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Grade inflation blows up German universities

Published: 19 Dec 2012 06:22 GMT+01:00

When 80 percent of students graduate with one of the top two grades, questions start being asked. When you learn that this figure was 70 percent as recently as 2001, alarm bells start to ring.

A report published last month by the German Council of Science and Humanities into marking practices across the nation's universities has drawn attention to these disquieting trends. It may provide welcome reassurance to anxious German students swotting for examinations, but makes otherwise for uncomfortable reading.

Wolfgang Marquardt, head of the Council which produced the report, did not mince his words in describing the situation to The Local. "The grades which students currently receive say almost nothing meaningful about their real achievement," he said.

The statistics which leap out of the report make it easy to see where Marquardt is coming from. What does it mean to achieve a "very good" or "good" in Art and Art History, when you're joined by 96 percent of all candidates? Likewise for social science, where 89 percent emerge with top grades.

Law and medicine stand out as the only two subjects in which the majority are still deemed only 'satisfactory' - for all other subjects 'adequate' has fast become the new fail.

An optimist might applaud rising performances - and this is a line many individual universities have taken in defending their results. Others are more sceptical.

"Good results can sometimes simply reflect the quality of students," Matthias Jaroch, spokesman for the German Association of University Professors and Lecturers, told The Local. "Some universities have become more selective about the students they admit, driving up standards."

But he was keen to emphasize that this doesn't provide an adequate explanation for the scale of the increases being registered.

"There are also political influences on the situation. Essentially politicians want as many students as possible to go on to university - and once they get there they want them to complete the course and to succeed," he said.

Marquardt believes that the universities themselves are complicit in the process: fiercer competition between institutions and courses to attract students - and the funding which they bring - may have encouraged them to lower the hurdles placed in front of students. "There is a reluctance to put potential students off with arduous testing," he suggested.

Then there's the personal dimension. "Professors don't want to undermine the life chances of their students by handing out poor marks. They know just how vital these grades now are in determining a student's future life chances, and to some extent they just feel unable to dish out damning grades," said Marquardt.

"Nowadays we have this preoccupation with superlatives. Everything must be the best, must be excellent. But what we need is a bit of honesty - to say that 'good' really is 'good', and satisfactory really is good enough. At the moment we seem to divide everything into two categories - exceptional, and bad," he added.

Global grade inflation

Germany isn't the only country struggling with this; almost every western society has been hit by the phenomenon. In Britain, the number of students getting first-class degrees has increased by 125 percent in the past decade, according to statistics from the Higher Education Statistics Agency. Similar trends have been noted across North American colleges.

This doesn't mean that the effects aren't real - and damaging. "Employers are struggling to use university grades to make decisions about applicants, because they really say so little about them," according to Marquardt. "Many smaller firms in particular can get seduced by the marks which an applicant has, without having any means of evaluating them in context."

Universities, too, are apparently having a tough time selecting the best candidates for progression to Masters programmes. Sorting the wheat from the chaff, it appears, has never been more difficult.

"We badly need some more objectivity in the system," said Marquardt.

What both Jaroch and Marquardt fought shy of admitting was that academic standards themselves could be slipping as a result of the rampant grade inflation. They were clear that they didn't see this as the main problem.

"I don't think examinations have got easier: it's just that better marks are being handed out for the same performance," insisted Marquardt.

Given the lack of any comparative data, the question cannot be settled definitively. But anecdotal evidence, at least, indicates such confidence might be misplaced.

The situation which one recent finance and business studies graduate described to The Local made it clear that widespread knowledge of lenient marking had turned many of her courses into farcical operations.

One student Jessica, who didn't want her surname published, described how the whole class would troop up one by one to deliver comically under-prepared presentations, universally culled from Wikipedia the night before - and would then all walk away clutching top grades.

"We were happy, because we had the marks we needed without having to work too hard. The professors put up with it because they came out of it looking good, as all their students had great marks," she said. "Actually, it was almost embarrassing."

The Local (news@thelocal.de)

Your comments about this article

08:57 December 19, 2012 by Berlin fuer alles
This is not just a problem in Germany. It may be more a subject specific problem. For example subjects like social sciences, art, history and other non professionally controlled subjects are open to this problem. Industries like the medical and pharmaceutical industry have a vested interest in making sure the cream rises to the top and only very good students get good marks and substandard students fail. Tutors need to keep their numbers competitive with other tutors and lack of proper marking supervision can easily lead to this. Without putting down the achievement of someone I know who studied social sciences whilst leading a very busy life. I always wondered how she pulled distinctions all the time.
10:55 December 19, 2012 by amaticc
In the system where you can pass an exam just by answering a multiple choice questions, you can not expect better. I newer had any exam with multiple choice questions. Every time I had a problem solving part, and if a student passes that, it will need to go on the "oral" part for a theory.

Multiple choice question are easier to evaluate, but these tests hardly can prove real understanding of a topic.
11:51 December 19, 2012 by chicagolive
When you build a society on just reciting and regurgitating what you see or read how can you not expect such results. In Germany, by my personal opinion they put to much importance on the papers in the persons hands versus the person themself. Most of the top companies in the world and alot of the richest people are people who had low marks or did not even finish. These people would never make it or survive in present day Germany but then again being a robot in the society seems to be the current preferred course for now here
14:09 December 19, 2012 by Berlin fuer alles
@ amaticc

Whilst I agree with what you say regarding multiple choice questions I am not so sure that is the issue here. I think it is simply a case of some subjects like Social Science, Arts and History being marked with too much discretion from the tutors to bump up marks. With no professional body with a vested interest in these subjects such as there is with Medicine for example the tutors feel the need to get as many students through with flying colours as possible. In a subject like Medicine I can imagine the big pharmaceutical and medical organisations keeping a close eye on the standards as they want to make sure they accept suitable personell into their ranks. Just my impression on things.
15:46 December 19, 2012 by mobiusro
I am not sure where the problem is if Social Science, Arts and History teachers grade with more indulgence a student that is visibly more gifted or more inclined to the other Sciences? Would you agree that a student that is very good in Math and Physics for example should have to suffer just because he doesn't have that much interest in music or drawing? So in your books a kid with excellent Math skills, excellent Physics skills but just average or max good skills in music and drawing or even sport should get an lower average grade than someone who is good at all of them?
16:11 December 19, 2012 by Berlin fuer alles
@mobiusro

I don't know what you are talking about. This article is about university and students in topics such as social science, art or history generally get top grades to such an extent that it is hard to differentiate between those who deserve top grades and those whose are bumped up. In contrast with Medicine and Law where generally students do not get good grades unless they earn them.
00:02 December 20, 2012 by jmclewis
Welcome to the American way, all you need now is a University of Phoenix. Also set a policy of everyone goes to college now matter the aptitude with government grants and loans; it would not be fair to deny anyone a college education for any reason.
02:12 December 20, 2012 by zeddriver
For decades we have taught our kids that they are all winners and there are no losers. Maybe that's why there are so many cases of Doctorates with plagiarism issues. The school saw the plagiarism. But gave them the degree anyway so as to not hurt the students feelings or the chances of said student getting a prestigious position. Yes! Yes! that's it! The plagiarism was the schools fault.
05:02 December 20, 2012 by vonSchwerin
For starters, too many German students are allowed to do doctorates ("Promotion"). The Dr. should be only for the very, very, very best. There is a mania about having the Doktortitel, but when every mediocrity can get -- honestly or dishonestly -- it becomes meaningless.

I'd be curious to know what percentage of applicants to Humboldt Uni zu Berlin, LMU-Munich, FU Berlin, and Uni Heidelberg are admitted to humanities and social sciences doctorates vs. applicants to Harvard, Yale, Oxford, and Cambridge.
09:10 December 20, 2012 by Berlin fuer alles
@vonSchwerin

My partner has a Social Science masters from the Humbolt and she would be the first to agree that a lot of the top grades were given with a nod and a wink. She was even thinking of going back to the university to study another subject in the knowledge that she can take it easier the second time around and get good grades. It seems the university industry in Germany is one giant white wash to keep people off the live register. I suppose after about 20 years study they can then do an internship and then another internship.
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